We’re into the first quarter of the year when many students start thinking about accommodation for the year, those changing jobs start considering new homes, and many of us are scouring online property sites, looking for holiday rents.
Paul Stevens, CEO of Just Property, warns that property scammers have become quite sophisticated:
We encourage those looking for rentals to be vigilant. It is vital that you look for ways to verify the integrity of the property listing you are interested in.
The only sure-fire way of ensuring you won’t be scammed, says Stevens, is to deal through a reputable property company and double check everything. “Scammers are clever conmen and women; the smartest ones are extremely charming, and adept at lulling their victims into a false sense of security, even using real properties that are really up for rent to lure the unwary into making their deposits and paying that first month’s rent into the crooks’ account.”
Almero Tidbury’s experience is a case in point, says Stevens. His response to an advert was followed an hour later by a phone call from “a pleasant gent” telling him that the property would be on view during the week and that he would receive an email shortly with more information. “True to his word, I received an email that informed me of the viewing days and times, the name of an agent who would be there to answer any questions, and the pleasing mention that as I was first to respond, I had preference on the flat.”
Almero responded, saying he would be at the Wednesday viewing and shortly afterwards received another mail, with deposit information and banking details, a copy of the lease.
He viewed the flat and it was exactly what he wanted. In the days that followed, the 16 page lease travelled back and forth, signatures were signed, ID copies were swapped, and Almero made his deposit.
On the last Thursday of October, the “agent” phoned to tell Almero that the owner of the property was in town for the weekend to do the walk-through of the apartment, and to hand over the keys. Almero was reminded to ensure that the first month’s rent was paid before taking the keys.
At 5pm that Sunday, he pulled up outside the apartment, bakkie packed to the brim with everything he owned. Eventually a car pulled up and thinking this was the owner, Almero got out to greet him, and after a little confusion, came to the realisation that they were both there to collect the keys... “It turned out I’d been scammed along with at least three other people. That night was possibly the worst night of my life. I saved for months to get an R18 000 deposit together, I’d paid R9 000 in rent. I was R27 000 out of pocket and I had no place to go back to. It took me 6 months of sleeping on a friend’s couch, with my bed and fridge locked up in storage, to save up enough to eventually try again.”
“In hindsight, I realise I should really have spoken to more people involved in the property: talked to the agent at the viewing, asked where they had listed the apartment. I should have made sure I physically met the person that I was dealing with electronically. But the constant reminders over the phone that all was in order lulled me into a sense of complacency.” There are various ways to check the credentials of an “agent”, says Stevens. First, make sure that the agency has a valid Fidelity Fund certificate. Second, phone the company’s head office and check that they have an agent of that name in their employ. Thirdly, check with the branch of the agency that they have the property listed. Ideally, meet the agent face to face at their offices to sign the lease, and double-check with the bank concerned that the account number you’re paying your deposit into is a trust account.
“At Just Property, we offer protection to tenants in a number of ways. For example, we place rental deposits in trust accounts (which can be identified on bank statements); we have partnerships with well-regulated providers like PayProp, an automated rental payment and reconciliation platform that is both easier to use and more powerful than solutions offered by banks and traditional software vendors and we offer products (like RentShield Zero Deposit) that mean a tenant does not need to make a large capital outlay at the beginning of a lease term.
“Our agents are well informed and can easily spot anomalies or indicators of a property scam. This is one of the many (often unacknowledged) ways that real estate agents add value to their clients,” Stevens continues. “Our agents also have systems in place to verify tenants and landlords alike, using third-party, expert verification tools, the cost of which is carried by our franchise offices.”
Stevens concludes: “By all means do your research on the online portals – they are the best way to see what is available and assess market value. But always work through a verified agent, and make sure you meet them at some point, face-to-face, in an agency.”